Monday, April 29, 2013

An NPR Anniversary Evaluation

Government Executive has a piece on Gore's National Program Review/Reinventing Government project, assessing how it looks 10 years later.

Friday, April 26, 2013

NYTimes on Pigford, Garcia, etc.

The Times has a front page article, their big story for the day, on the course of the various discrimination class action suits against USDA/FSA.  The writer apparently talked to a number of career employees, and found a number of cases of fraud.  The politicians and the lawyers come across unfavorably.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

What's a Small Family Farmer These Days?

According to ND's new senator:
"“We have small farmers, small family farmers who must spend $1 million before they can even take a crop out of the ground. That is an average farmer in my State. That is how much it costs to engage in farming."

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Faith in Congress and Computers

We had such faith in our institutions and the computer 45 years ago.  Technology Review reprints a piece from 1968 in which a political science prof predicted the future:

One can readily foresee a congressman sitting at a console in his office poring over computer print-outs into the late evening hours or over the weekend and cutting through the paper arguments and justifications of executive programs with penetrating lines of questions. The possibility of abuse also exists, but the weight of past congressional experience suggests that most congressmen will use such new investigative power wisely. In situations that invite adversary argument, alternative positions and points of view will be more thoroughly developed and cogently presented.

[updated to add title and link]

Monday, April 22, 2013

Best Sentence I Read Today

"Never take driving lessons on a stick shift from someone you're breaking up with". 

So writes Justice Sotomayor--as part of the divorce she got the car, with the stick, so her soon-to-be-ex was teaching her.

I recommend the book, though I've not finished it.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Douthat: Sci-Fi Optimism and Worldly Pessimism

Ross Douthat at the Times passes on Boston and terrorists in favor of musing about extra terrestial worlds.

He finds optimism in the 1950's science fiction--we confidently expected to visit other worlds and other galaxies--which has faded today and hopes that some of that optimism can be refound.

I was a reader of the old-time science fiction: Clarke, Heinlein, Pohl, Asimov, et. al.  I loved it.  And I agree we were optimistic then, at least if we didn't blow ourselves up (see "A Canticle for Leibowitz).  Remembering those times though  I think we were more pessimistic about the fate of the "Third World", as we used to call the recently freed colonies, at least we were by the middle 60's when the first flush of enthusiasm about decolonization had passed.  The feeling led into the gloom and doom of the running out of resources crowd, the fear that we'd never feed the booming population, etc. 

So the passage of 50 years has produced surprises: we've not been to the moon for many years, humans have never visited Mars.  On the other hand the progress made by developing nations is still startling to me. 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Old Timers Are Forgetful: George Will

George Wills is one of several whom identify as close contemporaries (i.e., born within a year or two of me).  We tell kids not to put on the Internet anything which they'll regret later, but the same could be said to geezers like me and Wills.

The other day he had a nice column taking off from the PBS broadcast of "The Central Park Five", which tracks the history of how five minority youths were wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in Central Park.  He writes: "Journalism, like almost every other profession relevant to this case, did not earn any honors. Until now."

Fine.  Good for George.  But today, Mr. Steve Dutky of Takoma Park throws Wills' words of 1989 back in his face: "In his May 1, 1989, op-ed column, “They went ‘wilding,’ ” George F. Will called “The Central Park Five” boys “evil.” He went on to write: “Punishment in this case will be interminably delayed and ludicrously light. The boys know that; that is one reason they were singing rap songs in their jail cells.” The nastiness of this column has stuck with me these 24 years."

He suggests Wills should apologize.  I agree.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Driverless Bus Drones?

Had a thought today--suppose you put drone software and Google driverless car software in a bus?  So the idea is, the bus follows a standard route, which cuts the complexity of the job the software has to do.  The Google software works to get the bus around the route, but is set to put the bus in "safe" mode if there's any problem (i.e., a problem on the bus, a road situation it can't handle).  Meanwhile the "drone" software enables a remote operator  to monitor the bus and to step in to resolve problems. 

Digital Public Library Goes Live

The Digital Public Library of America ( is going live this week, today in fact.  Remember Google Books--this is more ambitious.  From the announcement, it will be: "
  • First, an easy-to-use portal where anyone can access America’s collections and search through them using novel and powerful techniques, including by place and time.
  • Second, a sophisticated technical platform that will make those millions of items available in ways so that others can build creative and transformative applications upon them, such as smartphone apps that magically reveal the history around you.
  • Third, along with like-minded institutions and individuals the DPLA will seek innovative means to make more cultural and scientific content openly available, and it will advocate for a strong public option for reading and research in the twenty-first century."
One thing which bugs me is all the information which is not easily available, even though it's public. For example, trying to access the Congressional Record for years before roughly 1990 is difficult.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Great Epitaph for Lady Sale

Via The Best Defense, a 10 best list of books on Afghanistan .  The entry for Lady Sale's book says:
Lady Sale was possibly the only Brit to come out of the first Afghan war with her reputation enhanced. She arrived with an unmarried daughter, seeds from her Agra garden and a grand piano. She survived the retreat from Kabul, with a musket ball in her shoulder and in due course led a jailbreak of her fellow hostages. Her tombstone reads: "Here lies all that could die of Lady Sale."

Big Apple Men Are Gentlemen

According to the NYTimes, a study of subway manners showed that more men stand than women, indicating that  New York city men are gentlemen.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

What We Don't Know About the Globe

Joel Achenbach explains the vanishing island in the Pacific, and throws in the fact the Navy still has seven ships exploring the oceans, simply because we don't know where all the islands and sea mounts are.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Some People Are Too Talented

From the bio posted here of Gregory Mankiw
Mankiw is best known at Harvard for his work in economics and for his immensely popular Introduction to Economics class — or Ec 10. His parallel profession as one of the world’s leading interpreters and conductors of Beethoven’s oeuvre is less well known in Cambridge. A child prodigy, Mankiw studied piano at the Universität für Musik in Trenton, N.J., not far from where he grew up. While earning a B.A. at Princeton University and Ph.D. at MIT, the ambitious conductor concurrently earned his M.M. in orchestral conducting from Carnegie-Mellon. At the Pierre Monteux School for Conductors, he garnered special recognition for his micro attention to detail and macro approach to sound.
Before joining the faculty at Harvard, Mankiw studied with the esteemed Fritz Frockenstem in the Orchestral Conducting Division of the London School of Economics. Museconominsts and arts critics used the word “revolutionary” to describe the 1980s world tour during which Maestro Mankiw performed with every major orchestra including the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, London Symphony and the Dresden Staatskappelle. Stateside, he has led orchestras in Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York and at the Metropolitan Opera.
 Strangely, his wikipedia entry doesn't reflect all this.

I'm sure Harvard and Boston will give a big turnout for the event (Arts Fair).

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Disappointing Obama Bureaucrats

I saw somewhere that the HHS Secretary expressed surprise at the difficulty of implementing Obamacare.  And there was an op-ed somewhere suggesting VA Secretary Shinseki should be ousted because of the backlog in VA claims.  (See this related article.)

Based on what I know, or rather read, which may be wrong, I'm not impressed with either secretary--one of the primary jobs of a managing bureaucrat is to foresee the future and plan ahead.e.

The VA is always a downstream agency; it gets DOD's output. So it shouldn't have been hard to look at DOD operations since 2002 and foresee a rising workload over the years.

Friday, April 12, 2013

How Do Trains Stay on the Track?

Jason Kottke posts a Richard Feynman video in which he explains that question, after he tells us why trains can go with solid axles and no differential.

What I now want to know is when was the method invented?  And why didn't Conestoga wagons need a differential (I assume because the wheels could slip?)

[Updated:  turns out the conical shape also contributes to the sway of a railway car.  See this wikipedia article on "hunting oscillation" ,which is a generic name for the phenomena.  And this article goes into more detail than the Feynman video.  It also briefly mentions an alternative to the coned wheel--canting the track.  Not quite clear on how that works--a canted racetrack presumably uses gravity to counterbalance centrifugal forces.  Is that the effect of a canted rail track, or does it also reduce the difference in distance traveled by outside and inside wheels?  Still nothing on when coned wheels were invented.]

Chopper Pilot as Bureaucrat

Tom Ricks' The Best Defense has a post entitled "A Military Genre: a List of the Hard-Won Wisdom of Combat Helicopter Pilots.

You might say there's no way a pilot and a bureaucrat have anything in common, and you'd be almost right.  But don't you think these bits apply?

"6. Decisions made by someone above you in the chain-of-command will seldom be in your best interest.

10. If everything is as clear as a bell, and everything is going exactly as planned, you're about to be surprised. 

14. If the rear echelon troops are really happy, the front line troops probably do not have what they need.

34. Nobody cares what you did yesterday or what you are going to do tomorrow. What is important is what you are doing -- NOW -- to solve our problem.  "

Some of the other items are specific applications of Murphy's Law.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Why Farming Is Dangerous

That was my first reaction when I saw the photos by The Cotton Wife.  They're cute kids and I'm sure the parents are careful, but one price farmers pay for the lifestyle and occupation they love is an increased risk to the people they love.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Where's All the Bureaucrats

Government Executive has a piece including tables showing the 10 most common occupations in government, the Federal government, state and local government.

I was surprised by the lack of classical bureaucrats and by the presence of secretaries:

See the piece for the more detailed breakdown.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Management Expertise in the Private Sector

Let's see: Apple has a $2 billion cost overrun on a headquarters building (now estimated to be a mere $5 billion)

Technology Review reports on a study showing 1 in 6 IT projects have a 200 percent cost overrun.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Drones and FEMA

Seems to me FEMA should immediately create its own air force of drones, first to survey the aftermath of hurricanes, flooding, etc to assess the extent and nature of damage and to track the arrival or non-arrival of aid vehicles; second to provide emergency cell phone service in cases where cell phone towers have been damaged and/or where additional service is needed.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Planting the White House Garden?

Obamafoodorama reports on the planting of the White House garden.  We've had a cool, rather dry couple of months which has delayed everything, particularly the cherry blossoms. 

In our garden we got the peas and lettuce, fairly early, though not as early as Al, who always beats us.  His peas and lettuce have been showing for a couple weeks now, while I just saw ours this morning.

Mrs. Obama is planting wheat, planning to focus on whole grain foods when it's harvested in the summer. The garden is up to 1,500 square feet, and as they have in the past, they're using seedlings, not seeds so much, which probably explains why they're slower than we are, even though their garden is probably a half zone warmer. 

No mention in the posts about whether the kids are doing any weeding--I think it's safe to say they aren't.  I'm not a parent, but I suspect it's tough to get teenagers to do anything like that.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Digital Library for All

Robert DArnton in the New York Review of Books writes about the launch of the Digital Public Library of America whose modest aim is to "make the holdings of America’s research libraries, archives, and museums available to all Americans—and eventually to everyone in the world—online and free of charge."

He traces the roots of the project back in American history, to our utopianism and pragmatism, the Enlightenment faith in reason and improvement and the practicality of trying to make things better step by step, ideas very appealing to me.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Nurse Anesthetists

Was checking the Bureau of Labor Statistics site and stumbled on this:

"Twenty-four newly defined occupations are included in this release. Computer network support specialists was the largest, with employment of 167,980 in May 2012. The highest paid new occupation was nurse anesthetists, with an annual mean wage of $154,390."

We hear a lot about the jobs which are lost to technology.  (I stumbled on one 19th century article noting that  binders and shockers (for wheat), considered skilled labor, were no longer needed given the development of machine reapers. )  And I'm struck by the salary for the anesthetists.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Drones and Farming

Via Marginal Revolution, here's a Daily Beast piece on drones in farming.  Unlimited possibilities, particularly with precision farming.  Meanwhile Conor Friedersdorf has an article on how drones should be limited in the interests of privacy.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Crunch[ie] Dairy the Demeter Way

This article at Treehugger describes a German dairy farm (mostly) which adheres to Demeter standards.  Amusing throughout, particularly this bit:
Our guide explains that the hollow horns remaining after a cow's passing are filled with manure, and buried underground through the winter. The composting manure gathers cosmic rays in the cold season, and in spring the mixture is dug up and the manure crumbled into the mixing tanks.A special process of mixing creates a vortex that distributes the cosmic energy in the correct manner (the view from the platform is reported to put the mixer in the right mindset during the hour-long mixing process, but more importantly the elevation obviates the need for pumps, which might disturb the cosmic energy)
 And here I always thought my German relatives/ancestors were practical, hard-headed types.

An oddity: it sounds as if the cows are never slaughtered, but yet they raise chickens for eggs and meat.

Monday, April 01, 2013

History Repeats: Kenya, Cellphones and I-Cow

Been doing some reading (and a little writing) in the history of USDA, extension, etc.  The theme I see there is that USDA worked for the most literate, most progressive farmers.  That's why I'm struck by this article in CSMonitor on I-Cow in Kenya; an app helps Kenyan dairy farmers manage their herds. 
Kahumbu’s iCow may not be the latest sensation on Wall Street, but experts say it is just the latest example of an innovative high-tech entrepreneurial culture that has started to take hold in Kenya. Following in the footsteps of major commercial successes such as MPESA – a mobile-phone banking application that now rivals Western Union – other Kenyan software developers are setting up shop in Nairobi, creating high-tech solutions for an African market that has long been ignored; universities and private companies are setting up labs and business incubators; and government officials are plotting strategies to transform Kenya into a high-tech hub for the continent.
I'd like to celebrate the progress being made, but we should also have a thought for those who will be left behind in the race to the top, to modernity.